Rewire


We’ve all been there; you do something almost unconsciously, and then you realize how dumb it was and you wish you could take it back.

Sometimes it’s something harmless, like a spelling error, but sometimes it has grave consequences, like smoking that one cigarette for old time’s sake. It can lead to a chain of destructive behaviours; not just more cigarettes, but also anger, self-hate, and guilt for falling off the wagon.

The truth is that these kinds of mistakes are common in all of us. Actually, it’s part of what makes us human. So says Ricard O' Connor in his book, Rewire. In Rewire, Richard O’Connor explains why we make these mistakes, and how our brains are wired so that we don’t only make them; we make them often! Luckily, this book will show how it’s possible to rewire our brains, to reverse our habits if we choose to be happier and healthier.

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. You succumb to your bad habits when your automatic self repeats behaviour without your conscious self choosing what’s better for you.

  2. By practicing mindfulness and staying dedicated, you can rewire your brain so your bad habits disintegrate. Keep meditating, watching yourself and “faking it” until you make it.

  3. The first step in destroying your bad habits is to look at yourself like an outsider, and acknowledge self-destructive behaviour. Meditate, and tune into your thoughts and feelings; the more you understand them, the easier your journey will be.

Control your two “selves”.

We've all been through this; you're faced with two choices, you know which one is right, yet you choose the wrong one. Why do we do that? It's because we all really have two selves – a conscious self and an automatic self. They both influence our decisions.

The automatic self acts without our direct control. It's what's influencing you when you mindlessly eat a bag of chips while watching TV. The conscious self uses rational thought and reason. When you decide to try octopus for the first time, your conscious self is in charge. Usually, when you do something you regret, it's because your automatic self is in control, and your conscious self isn't considering the consequences. You eat those chips without thinking about it.

So if you want to overcome any bad behaviour, you have to train your automatic self to stop slipping. Strengthening your conscious self to be more dominant is also useful, but training your automatic self is more effective. Brains can physically change. You can direct the ways your brain develops, and how it affects your behaviour.

Our brains are constantly building new cells, and new networks between them. In fact, it's recently been discovered that learning actually causes the growth of new cells; our behaviour affects brain cell growth, thereby brain function. When you do any action repeatedly, your nerve cells grow more and more connections with each other. For example, “go to the gym” (nerve A) will connect with “stay at the gym until my workout is done” (nerve B).

As you work out more and more, it'll become a habit. Nerves A and B will increasingly bond together. So when we develop good habits, we replace bad habits. You need to change your automatic habits from negative to positive ones, says O' Connor.

Your habit can be the end of you. Don't let it happen.

Unfortunately, it's not easy to unlearn the bad habits in our automatic system. Our automatic self has many habits – some that benefit us, and some that hurt us. Habits form when repeated patterns of behaviour become normal, and form new pathways in the brain.

We learn our good and bad habits subconsciously. A bad habit might be watching TV and eating chips after work, instead of going to the gym. A good habit could be brushing your teeth. Some habits, like smoking, are clearly harmful. Other times, however, habits that we think are good are actually destructive. Self-serving biases lead to deceptively destructive habits.

Self-serving biases affect the way we see ourselves and the world. We claim that we're responsible for our good characteristics, but blame our faults on the outside world. For example, imagine a man who tactlessly checks out every woman he meets. He might justify his behaviour by saying, “I'm just a man with human desires.” That reasoning makes it seem like it's not his fault. But if he performs well at work, he'll think that's because of his own dedication and perseverance, not because he is fortunate enough to be in a supportive work environment in a growing industry.

Interestingly, most happy and confident people benefit from the self-serving bias of believing they earned their happiness and confidence. This can be detrimental, though, if it distorts reality. If someone becomes overconfident in her abilities, she may stop trying hard. We tend to ignore anything that goes against our self-serving biases. Our beliefs keep reinforcing themselves. If you hear that a person is unintelligent before you meet him, you're more likely to interpret him that way when you actually meet. The opposite may be true if the person is introduced as a professor.

These sorts of biases operate unconsciously, so they don't usually get corrected by the conscious self. Instead, we fall into making the same mistakes without having chosen to do so.

Don't repress your emotions.

You know how a boiling tea kettle needs to let out steam? Emotions work the same way. They're also chemical reactions, they build up, and they have breaking points. Negative emotions like fear, anger and guilt can push us into self-destructive behaviour. When we try to repress those feelings, they just come out another way.

Emotions are simply reactions to things, like how pulling your hand away is a reaction to touching a hot stove. So emotions can't be “wrong,” since they’re not meant to be based on reason. However, sometimes we think they’re wrong, which causes us increased guilt, anger or frustration.

Thinking your emotions are wrong can result in self-destructive behaviour. Self-destructive behaviour is really a result of our two minds not communicating. Our conscious and automatic selves sometimes give us conflicting advice, which can cause us to hurt ourselves. Sometimes the conscious self knows an action is wrong, but the automatic self does it anyway. This isn't always necessarily bad. Anger, for example, can be a good thing when you're protecting yourself or your loved ones. It can instill you with bravery.

If you have too much repressed anger, however, you may underestimate risks or overlook dangers. This can lead you to make rash decisions. If you're angry at work, for instance, you might quickly write a rash email. However, if someone's breaking into your house, anger may give you the courage to make the rash decision of getting a bat! Stifled anger will build up. There's a good chance you'll eventually take it out on someone you love, by hurting or deserting them. Doing so can make you feel guilty, which can, in turn, make you hate yourself. And hate is another dangerous repressed emotion.

The results of self-destructive behaviour.

There's another reason we're sometimes self-destructive: we're really crying for help.

Sometimes the unconscious self starts causing us trouble, by seeking attention in hopes that someone will come to the rescue. People often struggle to ask for help, because they fear being rejected. Instead, they ask in subtler ways.

Richard O'Connor, the author of this book, once encountered a 16-year-old boy who was having problems with marijuana. He dropped his stash in front of his mother twice, and when O'Connor pressed him about it, the boy broke down crying and said he just wanted a caring mother. He'd wanted his mother to see it and reprimand him.

As we've seen, self-destructive behaviour is often tied to strong emotions. This isn't always the case, however. Sometimes people simply don't act against their self-destructive tendencies. We can see this in people who are truly defeated. There are two kinds of defeated people.


First, there are those who've never had the motivation to fix their harmful behaviour, because they've never thought to put forth the effort. They assume that being miserable is just part of life, and don't try to change it.

Then there are those who've tried too often to fix themselves. They've disappointed themselves or others so many times that they get burnt out on trying. They also lack the motivation necessary for self-improvement, but for different reasons. If you're in the second category of defeated people, try setting more realistic expectations for yourself. Don't think you'll quit smoking right away – you're only setting yourself up for disappointment if you fail. Instead, set more manageable goals, like smoking less.

Addictions and undertow.

How many of you have thought, “Yes, I've finally quit smoking!” only to find yourself smoking again two weeks later? Addiction and undertow, another kind of self-destructive behaviour, often function in this pattern. Undertow blocks your recovery when you're getting close to success. It results from bad habits that are etched into our brains. One simple mistake can make us slip back into the pattern our brains expect.

Imagine an alcoholic who's been sober for a year. He accidentally takes the wrong glass at a party, has a sip, and then goes on a drinking binge. This person will then feel intensely guilty, and may even hate himself. He could lock himself up at home, neglect his work and go on being self-destructive.

One way to steer clear of that pattern is to associate your relapse in judgement with something negative like fear or disgust. When that former alcoholic accidentally sipped the wine, he could've instinctively spit it out. We have to rewire the patterns in our brain to avoid getting swept up by the undertow.

Addictions are inherently self-destructive, because it means that something has taken away our self-control. It could be a substance like a drug, or a habit like gambling. When you get something you want, your brain releases dopamine, which makes you want it more. We can see this hormonal response in lab animals: when they're trained to give themselves small shocks in order to avoid getting a larger shock, they'll keep giving themselves small shocks even when the threat of the bigger one is gone.

This is why Alcoholics Anonymous's 12-step program for dealing with addictions is so effective. The first thing you have to do is admit that you're powerless. Then you can look at yourself like an outsider, assess the problem and start to tackle it.

Practice mindfulness and self-control.

So how can we completely steer clear of bad habits? The first step is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness means looking at yourself in a calm, objective and compassionate way. It means stepping back from your habits, so you don't act on them immediately.

You can work on mindfulness by meditating. Mindful meditation is about aiming for mindfulness, not enlightenment or zen. It’s a request of yourself, for you to listen to your feelings, without judging yourself. Find a quiet, comfortable place where you can meditate every day at the same time, for about 30 minutes. Close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and let other thoughts come and go. Don't worry about doing it exactly right.

If meditation is hard for you, try monitoring your thoughts and feelings by keeping a journal.

Ultimately, your goal is to increase your self-control and strengthen your willpower.

If you are continuously dedicated, self-control will become part of your automatic self, not just your conscious self. You'll rewire your brain.

This is what the AA saying, “Fake it till you make it,” is referring to. Breaking an addiction is difficult at first, but gradually it'll take less effort to practice self-control, as it becomes more automatic. “Fake it till you make it” applies to other things as well. Even pretending to be kind will make you kinder. You'll feel good about yourself, and keep doing kind things until it becomes a habit.

There are also ways to increase your will power. Eat healthier so your brain will function better. Always keep parenting yourself, and lightly punish yourself if necessary. If you can associate a negative stimulus with your temptation, you'll start to feel it less and less. Once you've gained more mindfulness and self-control, it will also help you in the long run to start building stronger relationships with positive people. Being surrounded by other healthy people – with healthy minds – means your self control can give way to automatic positive habits.

What I took from it

You succumb to your bad habits when your automatic self repeats behaviour without your conscious self choosing what’s better for you. But by practicing mindfulness and staying dedicated, you can rewire your brain so your bad habits disintegrate. Keep meditating, watching yourself and “faking it” until you make it.

Know yourself. The first step in destroying your bad habits is to look at yourself like an outsider, and acknowledge self-destructive behaviour. Meditate, and tune into your thoughts and feelings; the more you understand them, the easier your journey will be.

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